Ten, 12, 15 — I’ve lost count. Day after day the last several weeks, I’ve appeared on talk shows with hosts who’ve asked the same questions: “Was Michael Jordan really that (magnificent, sublime, G.O.A.T.-like)?’’ … “Was he really that big of a (tyrant, S.O.B., jerk)?’’ … “Why were Jerry Krause and Jerry Reinsdorf so (jealous, vindictive, joyless) in breaking up the Bulls?’’
But near the end of a show last week, a host snuck in a different query: “What would you tell a young person who wants to get into sports media?’’
I paused. Did he really want to go there? Now? Sports media is a wilted flower, a pot-holed wheeze down a one-way back road in a rusted jalopy, a relic exposed as the antithesis of essential during the COVID-19 catastrophe. It has been left naked and cold by dried-up advertising revenue, radical downsizing, crumbling journalistic bedrock, corporate raiders who buy and kill news shops, an over-reliance on sports leagues and franchises to stay afloat, athletes and teams that have their own methods to reach fans and — if major sports leagues do shut down in 2020 — zero employment prospects as pay cuts and furloughs turn into permanent layoffs. Even if Major League Baseball, the NBA, the NFL and college football return without spectators, one might have a more secure future as a drive-thru cashier at Taco Bell. Oh, and I should note that regular access to athletes and coaches, so vital to the storytelling separating good sports sites from charlatans, might not happen in a post-pandemic world of social distancing and no press boxes, thus requiring skilled writers to cover games off TV like the basement bloggers of yore.
Or, perhaps, do something else for a living.
For some reason, I then thought of the late Albert Dickens. Fortunate to spend much of my column-writing and broadcasting career amid the vigorous, thriving heyday of media, I viewed Albert not as an editorial assistant but as a daily symbol of the good times, a wise and pleasant soul who sat at his desk in the Chicago Sun-Times sports office and reminded us how we literally had life by the balls. Forget about the pathetic, mind-blowing farces evident even in those prosperous days: CEOs/publishers who skimmed profits and went to prison, editors who protected sports owners, fans who threatened your life because you didn’t always worship Da Coach, the newspaper guild that stood firm when the editor-in-chief forearm-shivered you into his office wall, the radio boss who canned you with great ratings because you didn’t agree in writing to stop criticizing his rights-holder teams, the baseball writer who gave an MVP vote to A.J. Pierzynski because he was a trusted source, the drunken colleague who wanted to fight in a Washington arena until Al Gore came walking by, the newspaper executive who asked the college football beat writer to pick up his free season tickets, the media rivals who couldn’t outwork or outperform people but certainly could outsleaze them.
“You’re alive and well,’’ Albert would assure me in his dapper sweater and tie, “and you’re making a nice living doing what you love.’’ He would deliver such a speech on a day when I’d take for granted the ESPN debate show I was taping that morning, the one that reached nearly a million viewers a day back in the best years of “Around The Horn;’’ and the column I was preparing for the next day’s newspaper, which might take me to Wrigley Field, Soldier Field or the Slaughterhouse That Jordan Built; and the expense account that allowed me to hop on planes and cover almost any event I wanted around Planet Sport. I welcomed his verbal nudges, those cues to smell the roses.
To me, Dickens was Media Yoda. And now, just days after his passing at 82, in a sports media landscape gutted by coronavirus fallout and facing a future unrecognizable when compared to the glorious past, somebody wanted to know what I’d tell a young person about a collapsing business. I would love to have replied thusly: Go read an entertaining Washington Post guest column by Rick Reilly, who doesn’t write enough, and realize that sportswriting can’t possibly be dying as long as he’s living.
If only the answer could be that simple. This was a young person’s life, and I could save it or ruin it. Years earlier, an agent asked me to have lunch at a Manhattan deli with a recent college graduate named Jordan Schultz, who said he wanted to be a sportswriter. Emerging amid the digital content boom of the 2010s, he thankfully has done well for himself as a basketball writer and Huffington Post columnist. Yet I wonder, in retrospect, if Jordan might have preferred the path of his father, Howard, the King of Starbucks. So my response to the radio host could not afford to be nuanced. I wanted to tout a sports media career as a blessing, as it has been for me for decades, but I also don’t want to add another dark statistic to the staggering U.S. jobless total. This is how I clapped back at our imaginary aspirant:
“Sure, pursue sports media as a sidelight gig. But you might think about writing code, not sports, until you have some money in the bank.’’
From this point forward, I’m afraid, a volatile industry has only limited options, none as appealing as when I began at 19 as a fiercely independent rabble-rouser with a singular journalistic mission: No one ever would order me what to write or say. First of all, the very idea of pugnacious, nonaligned sports journalism is all but extinct, swallowed by media companies that prefer to secure business partnerships with leagues, franchises and programs and eagerly promote those entities rather than also covering and scrutinizing them — a frightening thought about a $200-billion industry rife with scandal.
There are people who follow leagues and teams as beat reporters, people who excel in long- and short-form storytelling, people who host talk shows as couriers for teams on the station and people on TV who shriek about whether the Packers insulted Aaron Rodgers by drafting Jordan Love. But the hard-hitting columnists who keep the sports owners and power brokers honest are dwindling to dust, either too pricey for the payroll or too hot to handle for sites such as The Athletic, which lacks edge and somehow is trying to cover AND appease the Big Sports mechanism. And the days of ESPN hammering the NFL over concussions and player conduct cases are long past, replaced by a corporate need to butter up commissioner Roger Goodell and the owners and help the network land a spot in the Super Bowl broadcast rotation. As for local media operations, which once exposed Barry Bonds’ steroids sham and some of sport’s biggest scandals, most gave up on investigative reporting long ago, realizing the professional and college machines have enough financial and political clout to flick them aside, probably with one call from a team executive or coach to a stadium-suite-leasing media boss.
The 2020 survivalist mantra: Become a sports sycophant or die. I’d rather die, keeping in mind that no one should allow an industry capable of being so thankless and cutthroat — lowbrow, too — to define one’s self. If sports media were a shinier craft, yes. And it once was, with the Post calling it “a storied profession’’ in its own piece last week about the demise of the industry. But the world is very big, folks — travel, art, wineries, parties, sunsets, movie scripts and 22-mile ocean bicycle trails, assuming we’re allowed to resume those activities — and you’d be foolish to allow the sports media trade to completely hijack your life when inevitably, for reasons that have nothing to do with talent or production or work ethic, you’ll be blindfolded and tossed aside by someone working for someone who works for someone.
And whatever happened to the spirit of beatdown competition, whipping the rivals with a big story or a mightier column and making content better for readers, viewers and listeners? Does anyone compete anymore? Back when I arrived in Chicago, I made a point of calling the publicist of author Sam Smith and requesting an advanced copy of “The Jordan Rules,’’ the hot new book that revealed the dictatorial side of MJ. She not only sent excerpts, she sent some of the most controversial, which was great for the Sun-Times because we didn’t pay a penny for material that the rival Tribune — which employed Smith as a Bulls beat writer and compensated him with a salary and expense money — paid thousands of bucks to publish. Of course, I published a column about it first, embarrassing the Tribune and prompting Smith to call my editor, moping that I was trying to get him fired. To this day, Sam is cranky about it when, you know, he should have put the clamps on his publicist.
Maybe young people today clamor to be Mike Greenberg, an amiable TV and radio host. But if they want to emulate Bryant Gumbel and his reporting titans on HBO’s “Real Sports,’’ they’re out of luck because the show has only a few correspondents, and there’s no other program like it. And if they want to be Reilly — hey, he gets it, choosing scuba-diving each morning in Hermosa Beach over a regular writing regimen. He can afford to, you see. Such were the perks of sports media in the ‘80s, ‘90s, ‘00s and part of the ‘10s.
But not the ‘20s.
A reader of this column knows I’ve been alarmed, if not disgusted, by networks and sites that carry an amateurish, sappy tone of wishful thinking when “reporting’’ about the possible resumption of live events. I wrote about it last month, and because it doesn’t stop, I’ll run it back — as it pertains to the future of media. ESPN cannot speak sports into existence, but it certainly tries every night, with “SportsCenter’’ host Scott Van Pelt continuing as a mushy Disney character when, more than ever, we need journalistic clarity about the medical crisis of our lives. A series of critical issues should be addressed on each show: How will sports keep athletes and support staffs safe during an ongoing pandemic? … Are health risks worth taking just so leagues and athletes can recoup pieces of lost fortunes? … Does the whole thing go to hell if there’s a second wave of coronavirus? … Despite marked improvements in available testing, would enough kits be available over the months ahead — MLB alone needs 10,000 per week — for numerous pro and college inventories? … How can this be accomplished without depleting the national test supply and making sports leagues look uncaring and greedy? … What happens when athletes test positive? … Is MLB seriously going to quarantine a player who tests positive but NOT quarantine his exposed teammates, allowing the games to go on? … And will leagues be transparent publicly about every positive test or cover it up to protect their seasons and incoming revenues?
I rarely hear a mention of such protocol roll calls on ESPN. But I do get Stanford Steve, who joins Van Pelt on a frat-bro segment about past wagers gone awry. And I get a deceiving headline in the show tease — “PLAYERS TALK RETURN’’ — when there’s no certainty the NBA will resume play this year. So, kids, you’re basically stumping for sports leagues if you want to work in the biggest media shops. Even Van Pelt openly debated his purpose when he told CNN Business, “I have asked that question aloud and in my brain driving home some nights, where I think, `What are we doing?’ ‘’ The pandemic is one of those moments in time, like 9/11 and world wars, when sports media should want to be on the front lines. Instead, they’ve retreated into minimal-audience irrelevance. Why? Because the leagues expect media to be loyal partners in a time of crisis, to dutifully report what the leagues want the public to think, even if it’s tantamount to brainwashing that serves the bottom line.
That isn’t journalism. It’s cooperative public relations. And in the future, a bleak trend that started years ago will continue in full force: If you want to work in sports media, you’ll likely be working directly for the leagues and teams themselves, or for a company that remains obedient in covering them. And if you want to report a story they don’t want reported, you’ll be bounced out of town, if not out of the business. You may remember when wives of Houston Astros players were harassed by White Sox fans during a World Series game in Chicago, forcing the Sox to apologize; well, my column about the apology never saw the light of day, killed by editors intimidated by Sox management. On a higher level, this is how President Trump tries to bully the White House press corps, but enough media shops have remained strong and protected the backs of political reporters. Sports? I can count on one hand how many boardrooms would protect their people in a firestorm.
The New York Times is one. Bleeding from financial woes, ESPN was too busy making money off the UFC 249 pay-per-view presentation to investigate business partner Dana White, who made a debacle of testing protocols in Jacksonville and didn’t seem to care if COVID-19 was spread or lives were lost. A Times sports reporter wrote a critical and fair story, accusing the UFC president of flouting Florida safety and health guidelines — headline: “U.F.C.’s Coronavirus Plan Is Careful. Its Enforcement Has Been Spotty’’ — with White responding in his usual level-headed, mature tone.
“F–k that guy. F–k that guy,’’ he said. “You know what happened with that guy? That guy, who has never covered the sport ever before, was writing a story about (UFC parent company) Endeavor … What do you think happened when this guy and this paper covered the UFC when they had never covered it before? What do you think happened? The f—–g story was huge. They did killer traffic. Now they’re writing stories, three a week, and they’re posting live results I don’t give a s–t what that guy thinks, what he has to say or what he writes. Good for him.”
Was White concerned about fallout from the piece?
“I don’t give a f–k,” he said. “Don’t give a f–k.”
The Trump effect, call it.
I suppose a sports media aspirant could work for White and serve as his publicity flack, assuming he or she wants to risk contracting the virus. Or, worse, you can work for one of these goof-bubba sites where you make weed money for a few years but ultimately embarrass friends, family and even rats in the attic. You know: the joints run by creeps who see sports and sports media as toilets, take massive dumps and turn the profession into a sewage clog, aiming content at burnouts while declaring war on smart, well-adjusted humans. Like most panelists who’ve logged thousands of airtime hours on ESPN, I was targeted by one such loser who wrote about me so often — pathologically lying to the end — that there had to be something seriously wrong with him. There was: He was a hard-core drug addict who wound up in rehab and wrote about it, which may have explained why he had me followed and offered money to any colleague with “dirt’’ when I began a San Francisco gig. Later, Hulk Hogan sued the guy and his affiliated website for an original award of $115 million, putting both out of their misery forever.
If you think I’m overly cynical, I could suggest The Athletic. The founders, propped up by venture capitalists, are fighting the good fight for the future of sportswriting albeit with a glaring obstacle — they’re relying entirely on subscriptions that likely have peaked after four years of existence and won’t be selling during a sports-crippling pandemic, meaning hundreds of talented writers could be out of work if sports don’t return or a second virus wave buries an attempt to return. Actually, Sports Illustrated, despite internal flareups and various dents on a once-sterling reputation, might have a better chance to survive as a smaller operation. There are even smaller sports sites, zillions of them, but you’ll have a better life drawing unemployment.
TV? You either become a full-blown company man and get bonuses every time you utter, “This is why we love sports,’’ or you twist and shout like Stephen A. Smith. Otherwise, the networks will keep hiring those who played, coached or generally managed the game, often preferring been-in-the-trenches faux cred to compelling, thoughtful discourse and going so far to pardon criminals in sports and real life, from Alex Rodriguez to Ray Lewis.
Documentaries? This would be my recommendation, having contributed to the Hollywood content churn myself, with “The Last Dance’’ docu-series inspiring a new batch of sports films available in coming days — the Donald Sterling racism affair; Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa and the bogus home-run derby of 1998; the Lance Armstrong doping scandal; even a piece on Bruce Lee. But this isn’t sports media work, remember. It’s filmmaking, which means Jason Hehir, director of the 10-part Jordan series, is considered a far greater creative force today than Wright Thompson, thought to be the best of the current sportswriters and a guy ESPN actually has used — burp! — to chow down at college football tailgates.
The takeaway: Unless you really like brisket, please avoid journalism school and enroll in film school. But even then, as Hehir knows, you’re at the mercy these days of iconic athletes — some with their own production companies — who want their legacies crafted their way, maximizing the triumphs and minimizing the gambling mischief and political limpness. See, you’re still working for The Man.
Talk radio? All you need to know is that Bernie Miklasz, the biggest sports media personality in St. Louis the last three decades, was fired from his talk show because he made too much money. And the story floated in the New York Post about the teetering fate of ESPN host Dan Le Batard? Much as Le Batard denies the story, he pulls down more than $3 million a year — and the Post media writer has strong Bristol sources. Anyone who makes real money in talk radio soon might be replaced by … wait, a kid out of college! There’s the answer for our sports media aspirant: Work cheap when the big-money guys are ziggied!
Dismiss me if you’d like. But one sunny morning in 2009, on a Wrigley Field rooftop, I told the legendary writer Frank Deford, a former boss of mine who passed in 2017, why newspapers would fade away if they didn’t adjust to technology and create a revenue balance between newsprint and an eventual digital takeover. A year before, I had opted out of a lucrative, long-term deal because the Sun-Times reneged on a promise to improve its website — a flaw that led to the paper’s quick free-fall. Deford, then hosting a “Real Sports’’’ segment about the troubles of print media, pointed to a copy of that day’s paper and asked, incredulously, if the newsprint product would cease to exist. I told him the entire operation, someday, would cease to exist. For now, the Sun-Times remains on life support, kept alive by the periodic financial largesse of Chicago Blackhawks owner Rocky Wirtz, which means a staffer can’t criticize the Hawks anymore without being Bullwinkled by Rocky. But truly, whatever was left of a once-dominant sports department died when Albert Dickens passed.
I remember the day when Ozzie Guillen, a crude baseball loon worthy of my nickname for him (“The Blizzard Of Oz’’), called me a “(bleeping) fag.’’ He was incensed because I’d criticized him, while on a road trip covering the NBA Finals and U.S. Open golf, for rebuking a kid pitcher who didn’t bean a Texas Rangers batter as ordered. This led to a national media storm that included requests for me to appear with Tucker Carlson and Bill O’Reilly, half-assed punishment from the commissioner’s office and interest-conflicted Sun-Times editors who cheaply exploited coverage of the flareup, including a sports boss who asked me to issue a statement for other media outlets. Um, wasn’t my “statement’’ contained in the column I was writing on Guillen? WTF?
Sometime later, I saw Albert at his desk. “You sure know how to keep the lights on around here,’’ he said.
It’s a lost art, kids.
Jay Mariotti, called “the most impacting Chicago sportswriter of the past quarter-century,’’ is the host of “Unmuted,’’ a frequent podcast about sports and life (Apple, Podbean, etc.). He is an accomplished columnist, TV panelist and radio host. As a Los Angeles resident, he gravitated by osmosis to movie projects. He appears Wednesday nights on The Dino Costa Show, a segment billed as “The Rawest Hour in Sports Broadcasting.’’
Being Wrong On-Air Isn’t A Bad Thing
…if you feel yourself getting uncomfortable over the fact that you were wrong, stop to realize that’s your pride talking. Your ego. And if people call you out for being wrong, it’s actually a good sign.
In the press conference after the Warriors won their fourth NBA title in eight years, Steph Curry referenced a very specific gesture from a very specific episode of Get Up that aired in August 2021.
“Clearly remember some experts and talking heads putting up the big zero,” Curry said, then holding up a hollowed fist to one eye, looking through it as if it were a telescope.
“How many championships we would have going forward because of everything we went through.”
Yep, Kendrick Perkins and Domonique Foxworth each predicted the Warriors wouldn’t win a single title over the course of the four-year extension Curry had just signed. The Warriors won the NBA title and guess what? Curry gets to gloat.
The funny part to me was the people who felt Perkins or Foxworth should be mad or embarrassed. Why? Because they were wrong?
That’s part of the game. If you’re a host or analyst who is never wrong in a prediction, it’s more likely that you’re excruciatingly boring than exceedingly smart. Being wrong is not necessarily fun, but it’s not a bad thing in this business.
You shouldn’t try to be wrong, but you shouldn’t be afraid of it, either. And if you are wrong, own it. Hold your L as I’ve heard the kids say. Don’t try to minimize it or explain it or try to point out how many other people are wrong, too. Do what Kendrick Perkins did on Get Up the day after the Warriors won the title.
“When they go on to win it, guess what?” He said, sitting next to Mike Greenberg. “You have to eat that.”
Do not do what Perkins did later that morning on First Take.
Perkins: “I come on here and it’s cool, right? Y’all can pull up Perk receipts and things to that nature. And then you give other people a pass like J-Will.”
Jason Williams: “I don’t get passes on this show.”
Perkins: “You had to, you had a receipt, too, because me and you both picked the Memphis Grizzlies to beat the Golden State Warriors, but I’m OK with that. I’m OK with that. Go ahead Stephen A. I know you’re about to have fun and do your thing. Go ahead.”
Stephen A. Smith: “First of all, I’m going to get serious for a second with the both of you, especially you, Perk, and I want to tell you something right now. Let me throw myself on Front Street, we can sit up there and make fun of me. You know how many damn Finals predictions I got wrong? I don’t give a damn. I mean, I got a whole bunch of them wrong. Ain’t no reason to come on the air and defend yourself. Perk, listen man. You were wrong. And we making fun, and Steph Curry making fun of you. You laugh at that my brother. He got you today. That’s all. He got you today.”
It’s absolutely great advice, and if you feel yourself getting uncomfortable over the fact that you were wrong, stop to realize that’s your pride talking. Your ego. And if people call you out for being wrong, it’s actually a good sign. It means they’re not just listening, but holding on to what you say. You matter. Don’t ruin that by getting defensive and testy.
WORTH EVERY PENNY
I did a double-take when I saw Chris Russo’s list of the greatest QB-TE combinations ever on Wednesday and this was before I ever got to Tom Brady-to-Rob Gronkowski listed at No. 5. It was actually No. 4 that stopped me cold: Starr-Kramer.
My first thought: Jerry Kramer didn’t play tight end.
My second thought: I must be unaware of this really good tight end from the Lombardi-era Packers.
After further review, I don’t think that’s necessarily true, either. Ron Kramer did play for the Lombardi-era Packers, and he was a good player. He caught 14 scoring passes in a three-year stretch where he really mattered, but he failed to catch a single touchdown pass in six of the 10 NFL seasons he played. He was named first-team All-Pro once and finished his career with 229 receptions.
Now this is not the only reason that this is an absolutely terrible list. It is the most egregious, however. Bart Starr and Kramer are not among the 25 top QB-TE combinations in NFL history let alone the top five. And if you’re to believe Russo’s list, eighty percent of the top tandems played in the NFL in the 30-year window from 1958 to 1987 with only one tandem from the past 30 years meriting inclusion when this is the era in which tight end production has steadily climbed.
Then I found out that Russo is making $10,000 per appearance on “First Take.”
My first thought: You don’t have to pay that much to get a 60-something white guy to grossly exaggerate how great stuff used to be.
My second thought: That might be the best $10,000 ESPN has ever spent.
Once a week, Russo comes on and draws a reaction out of a younger demographic by playing a good-natured version of Dana Carvey’s Grumpy Old Man. Russo groans to JJ Redick about the lack of fundamental basketball skills in today’s game or he proclaims the majesty of a tight end-quarterback pairing that was among the top five in its decade, but doesn’t sniff the top five of all-time.
And guess what? It works. Redick rolls his eyes, asks Russo which game he’s watching, and on Wednesday he got me to spend a good 25 minutes looking up statistics for some Packers tight end I’d never heard of. Not satisfied with that, I then moved on to determine Russo’s biggest omission from the list, which I’ve concluded is Philip Rivers and Antonio Gates, who connected for 89 touchdowns over 15 seasons, which is only 73 more touchdowns than Kramer scored in his career. John Elway and Shannon Sharpe should be on there, too.
Money Isn’t The Key Reason Why Sellers Sell Sports Radio
I started selling sports radio because I enjoyed working with clients who loved sports, our station, and wanted to reach fans with our commercials and promotions.
A radio salesperson’s value being purely tied to money is overrated to me. Our managers all believe that our main motivation for selling radio is to make more money. They see no problem in asking us to sell more in various ways because it increases our paycheck. We are offered more money to sell digital, NTR, to sell another station in the cluster, weekend remotes, new direct business, or via the phone in 8 hours.
But is that why you sell sports radio?
In 2022, the Top 10 highest paying sales jobs are all in technology. Not a media company among them. You could argue that if it were all about making money, we should quit and work in tech. Famous bank robber Willie Sutton was asked why he robbed twenty banks over twenty years. He reportedly said,” that’s where the money is”. Sutton is the classic example of a person who wanted what money could provide and was willing to do whatever it took to get it, BUT he also admitted he liked robbing banks and felt alive. So, Sutton didn’t do it just for the money.
A salesperson’s relationship with money and prestige is also at the center of the play Death of a Salesman. Willy Loman is an aging and failing salesman who decides he is worth more dead than alive and kills himself in an auto accident giving his family the death benefit from his life insurance policy. Loman wasn’t working for the money. He wanted the prestige of what money could buy for himself and his family.
Recently, I met a woman who spent twelve years selling radio from 1999-2011. I asked her why she left her senior sales job. She said she didn’t like the changes in the industry. Consolidation was at its peak, and most salespeople were asked to do more with less help. She described her radio sales job as one with “golden handcuffs”. The station paid her too much money to quit even though she hated the job. She finally quit. The job wasn’t worth the money to her.
I started selling sports radio because I enjoyed working with clients who loved sports, our station, and wanted to reach fans with our commercials and promotions. I never wanted to sell anything else and specifically enjoyed selling programming centered around reaching fans of Boise State University football. That’s it. Very similar to what Mark Glynn and his KJR staff experience when selling Kraken hockey and Huskies football.
I never thought selling sports radio was the best way to make money. I just enjoyed the way I could make money. I focused on the process and what I enjoyed about the position—the freedom to come and go and set my schedule for the most part. I concentrated on annual contracts and clients who wanted to run radio commercials over the air to get more traffic and build their brand.
Most of my clients were local direct and listened to the station. Some other sales initiatives had steep learning curves, were one-day events or contracted out shaky support staff. In other words, the money didn’t motivate me enough. How I spent my time was more important.
So, if you are in management, maybe consider why your sales staff is working at the station. Because to me, they’d be robbing banks if it were all about making lots of money.
Media Noise: BSM Podcast Network Round Table
Demetri Ravanos welcomes the two newest members of the BSM Podcast Network to the show. Brady Farkas and Stephen Strom join for a roundtable discussion that includes the new media, Sage Steele and Roger Goodell telling Congress that Dave Portnoy isn’t banned from NFL events.